Social Action and Responsibility 4

  • 60 minutes
  • Grades: 9-12
  • Lesson Plan

by: Mark Rosenberg

This lesson connects the concept of Tzedakah to our obligation to help eradicate poverty and injustice around the world.


This lesson builds on the earlier lessons about Tzedakah and teaches the Jewish obligation to help eradicate poverty and injustice amongst Jews and non-Jews.

Lesson objectives

By the end of the lesson students will:

  1. Know that Judaism requires the performance of Tzadakah to both to Jews and non-Jews.
  2. Understand that each Jew has a responsibility to do Tzadakah.
  3. Read passages in Biblical and rabbinic literature in English or Hebrew.
  4. Comprehend a Biblical or rabbinic text in English or Hebrew.


Poverty line

Resources & Equipment needed

Computer with Internet access


Worksheets (see appendix)


1. Trigger (10 minutes): Use the computer with Internet access and projector, to show this video (3:15 minutes) to the class. The video challenges viewers to do what they know is right to end poverty. Opening with this video will allow students to learn about those living in poverty around the world, as well as see key words like justice and kindness in context. Lead a discussion about the video: 1. What was something new you learned or saw in this video clip? 2. The video urges viewers to “Break the Silence”. What does that mean in the context of poverty? 3. Should you do something to help end poverty? Why or why not? 4. Do you think that there are Jews who live in poverty?

2. Facts and Figures: Using the board, or a computer screen share current poverty statistics with students. In the United States: – the official poverty rate was 12.3% in 2006 – 36.5 million people lived below the poverty line – 12.8 million children live in poverty (17.4% of all children) (Source: US Census Bureau, the Current Population Survey, 2007 Annual Social and Economic Supplement) In Israel: -20.6% of households live below poverty line -24.7% of individuals living below poverty line (1.6 million) – 35.2% of children in live below the poverty line (768,800 people) (Source: Myers-JDC-Brookdale Institute, September 2006 “Poverty Update”) Note: There are several definitions for the term “poverty line”. Often if means the minimum level of income deemed necessary to achieve an adequate standard of living in the specific country. Sometimes it is measured as a household income that is 60% or less of the average household income in a country. After raising the issues of poverty, ask students why we should be concerned with what is happening around the world? Don’t we have enough to worry about? Why should we care? This leads us to our first source.

3. Text Study: Amos 8:4-6: The text explores the Amos’ realization how important it is to fight poverty and injustice. His message is focused particularly on the wealthy who seek to take advantage of the needy. Judaism is a religion that wishes to protect the rights of the poor and eschews those who perform religious rituals but have no respect for the poor. Hand out worksheets (they include the sources in Hebrew and English). Students should read the text in havruta and answer the questions on their worksheets for about ten minutes. Using the notes below, review the questions together. Explain to students that Amos was the first prophet to put social justice (as opposed to religious violation) as his primary concern.

1. What does this text describe? Amos is portraying people who show a strong disdain and haughtiness towards the poor. They are only concerned about money – they can hardly wait until Shabbat is over so that they can go back to work, and they are deceitful in their dealings with the poor.

2. Compare and contrast Amos’s statement in verse 6 to Avraham’s actions in with the guests that we studied in the first lesson (Bereshit 18:1-8). Avraham offers his visitors the best of the food and drink he had to offer, making sure that they are cared for immediately. The Amos text portrays the poor being ignored by the larger community. Avraham reaches out to the needy; in Amos, the greed and materialism of the powerful leave the needy abandoned.

3. How would you summarize Amos’ message in a contemporary terms? Give a practical example of what we can do to help. We have an obligation to protect the less fortunate and make sure that they are not taken advantage of by the systems of power and corruption. A specific example is welfare – which provides impoverished people with food stamps and a basic income so that they can survive.

4. Text Study Yonah 4:5-11: Sefer Yonah (or the Book of Jonah) emphasizes our need to be concerned for all people in the world. It is read on Yom Kippur and emphasizes the fact that God cares for all his creations, whether Jewish or non-Jewish. If your students are not familiar with Sefer Yonah, provide them with some background: The story centers around a prophet named Yonah. Yonah is told by God to go to the city of Nineveh and tell its people that they are sinning against God. Instead, Yonah flees and boards a boat that is bound in another direction. The ship encounters a storm and the sailors realize that God is angry with Yonah and he is creating the storm to punish him. They decide to throw Yonah overboard to save themselves. In the water, he is swallowed alive by a whale and carried to shore and spit out on the land. Again, God commands him to go to Nineveh. This time, Yonah reluctantly obeys. He tells the people that the city will be overthrown because of their sins. When the people of Nineveh hear what Yonah says, they repent their ways. Their repentance makes the threatened punishment unnecessary and God does not destroy the city. Yonah is upset because he believes that this means that the city was not judged fairly. If they had done wrong, they should be punished accordingly. He begins to feel sorry for himself, which is when the incident quoted here takes place. To read the whole book, in Hebrew and English, go to Read the text together and check for comprehension. Lead a discussion about the text, using the Q&A below as a guide.

1. Why is Yonah so upset and grieved about the loss of his kikayon gourd? Yonah enjoyed the shade of the gourd and felt almost immediately the impact of its loss. We feel more connected to something that affects us directly (e.g. gasoline prices) rather than something on the other side of the world (e.g. Darfur refugees, famine in Africa). Yonah’s moral conscious is being criticized by God as he seemingly cares more for this gourd than the 120,000 people who almost died in Nineveh.

2. The city of Ninveh was a non-Jewish city that repents after Yonah’s message is delivered. What can we learn about our obligation to Chesed and Tzadakah from this? Our obligation extends beyond the Jewish circle to the entire world. God sends Yonah to help change his creations for the better and they heed his call.

3. The text demonstrates that it is natural for people to feel closer to something they have nurtured and know, rather than things that are far away. How does Tzadakah and Chesed reflect that human behaviour? God’s example shows that Yonah feels immediately for the loss of something that is in his presence. If students were to live within the poverty line for one week, would they be more sensitive or aware of that issue? By creating a distance, we remain comfortably isolated from world problems and do not have to acknowledge other people’s suffering. Judaism understands that we instinctively do this, thus commands us to do Chesed and Tzedakah and get involved. The obligation to first help your neighbors, then your city, then your country and then the world (i.e. an ever-widening group of people) reflects man’s nature – you are more likely to give attention to a local cause than an international one because you understand it, have a stake in it, etc.

4. What can we learn from this text? There can be various responses including the importance of empathy, an illustration of God’s justice and pity, do not take things for granted, etc.

5. Summary Activity: Talk to the students about “Challah for Hunger” ( or a similar campaign. Emphasize that one student did to stand up for her cause and spread her message of caring.

6. Class Challenge (optional) Have the class decide on one agreed activity they will perform together to aid poor people. Examples could include cooking food for a soup kitchen; providing meals for needy local families; a sponsored walk for international poverty relief. The class should arrive at (a) an agreed task (b) a timetable with action plan. With appropriate encouragement and trust from the teacher and parents, students will rise to the challenge and can plan and activate exciting and meaningful social action programs.


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